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Clemson vs. Notre Dame Football ACC Championship Game Preview: Q&A with One Foot Down

Pat Sullivan from One Foot Down joins us to provide the Notre Dame point of view ahead of Saturday’s pivotal ACC championship game.

Clemson v Notre Dame Photo by Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images

It seemed inevitable all season, and especially after Nov. 7, and it’s finally here: the rematch between No. 3 Clemson (9-1, 8-1 in ACC) and No. 2 Notre Dame (10-0, 9-0 in ACC). This time, the conference championship is on the line, while both teams are also vying for spots in the College Football Playoff. The Tigers almost certainly needs to avenge their double-overtime loss to Notre Dame earlier this season in order to secure a berth in the CFP. Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish are probably safe for the CFP but still have a conference crown to play for (something new for them), and also want to leave no doubt about their CFP berth.

Pat Sullivan from One Foot Down, SB Nation’s Notre Dame site, was kind enough to answer some questions for us ahead of the big game on Saturday. He was...certainly not devoid of thoughts, so this should be an enjoyable read. (Pat, in all seriousness, thank you!)

Tom: Notre Dame, to this point, has had as good a year as a new (albeit temporary) member of the ACC as they possibly could have. Do you think the Fighting Irish will eventually join this conference full-time? And, is that something you want to see happen, or would you rather they remain independent going forward?

Pat: First, let me just say that it’s been a wild, weird, and overall positive experience with the Fighting Irish playing in the ACC this year — and especially funny that this question has come up in just about every single Q&A I’ve done with opposing sites. I mean, I completely get it considering the strange circumstances, but it’s been...interesting to see some of the blowback I’ve gotten in the comments for what I think is a pretty justifiable, and expected, stance on this topic.

NOTE: the lovely folks at Shakin the Southland were NOT one of the comment sections offended by that stance/explanation. Instead, it was fanbases for teams like Syracuse, BC, and South Florida (for some reason???) who got upset about it and made it known to me that the ACC SAVED Notre Dame and I was being a “jagoff” displaying “elitist d-baggery” because the question clearly “touched a nerve” when I proceeded to explain why I’m happy with independence.

But anyway, I’ll come back to the same basic thing I’ve said all year — hell, I’ll quote my answer from the STS Q&A before the Nov. 7 game (and update the numbers and wording a bit so it’s not outdated), because I think it otherwise holds up:

“No, that really hasn’t changed — ND values its independence and individual influence over the college football landscape too much, and if anything, this season in the ACC has shown Irish fans how uninteresting conference play can be. The Irish played ACC teams with a combined record of 42-53 (42-44 removing ND’s wins), and ND was pretty much by default one of the two best teams in the conference, with very little other competition besides Clemson (basically just UNC?).

Under normal circumstances in 2020, the Irish would have instead played their typical slate of USC, Stanford, and Navy, still had that November matchup with Clemson, and then also had a game against Wisconsin at Lambeau and a home game to start the year against Arkansas, which would have been fun. This hasn’t exactly been the most exciting season to join the conference, considering what the initial plan was.”

I’ll also add that, obviously, annual opponents like USC or Stanford aren’t necessarily fantastic every year, but playing down versions of rivals is always more interesting than playing mediocre teams you feel no emotion toward, right? I gotta think that’s how you guys feel about South Carolina, even if it has become a one-sided rivalry. It’s still more fun than kicking the shit out of Duke or Syracuse.

So, I think the stance of both Notre Dame and myself/all Irish fans is that we really just prefer independence and the freedom and power it gives the program, which I would think is fairly understandable. As long as the ACC can still be a home for ND’s other sports (it’s a great fit for basketball, lacrosse, etc.), there’s really no reason for the Irish to ever give this up.

Also, final note: it’d be FUN AS HELL to join for one season, win the conference, and then ride off into the sunset with the trophy, never to return. A smug d-bag can dream, right?

Tom: Notre Dame really seemed to take off after the Clemson game, particularly on offense. What have been the biggest differences in their offensive attack from the first part of the season to now (in terms of scheme tweaks, players stepping up, etc.)?

Pat: One of the biggest things has just been Ian Book taking his game to the next level. Even in the early going this season, we all thought this was the same Ian Book from the past couple years — deserts the pocket too early, can’t throw the deep ball, is a decent enough QB but not anyone who’s gonna actually drive the team to victory.

But something clicked within him in that Clemson game — and ever since, he’s been playing fantastic football.

  • Through 6 Pre-Clemson Games: 204 pass yds/game, 8.2 yds/attempt, 61.3% completion, 7 pass TD, 1 INT, 35.3 rushing yds/game, 4.2 yards/carry, 5 rush TD
  • Through 4 Clemson-Onward Games: 289 pass yds/game, 8.5 yds/attempt, 65.4% completion, 8 pass TD, 1 INT, 63.3 rush yds/game, 6.3 yard/carry, 3 rush TD

Additionally, those four Clemson-onward games included Notre Dame’s three best opponents on the year — Clemson, North Carolina, and Boston College — meaning Book hasn’t just turned his game up a notch against the dregs of the schedule, but instead flipped the switch for the biggest games of the season, when the team needed him most.

He’s not the only one who’s really stepped up as we got into the thick of the season, though. Wide receivers Javon McKinley and Ben Skowronek were both considered unexciting, if not disappointing, starters at the beginning of the year. Kevin Austin was supposed to be the No. 1 guy before getting hurt, and Braden Lenzy was the Oregon track star wideout everyone expected to flash some Golden Tate/Will Fuller moments this season after showing us something last year.

Instead, with injuries to both those guys, Ian Book was left with a couple fifth-year WRs who were considered big, kinda slow targets who either had been somewhat of a bust in the first four years (McKinley) or were a relative unknown from another program, especially coming off a season-ending injury the year before (Skowronek).

The two of them didn’t let that stop them from deciding they were gonna be go-to guys this year, and they apparently just needed to get a few games into the season to build that kind of rapport with Book, because they have FLOURISHED as the year has gone on.

McKinley leads the team in receptions (37) and receiving yards (660), while Skowronek is third and second in those respective categories (21 catches, 344 yards) while also leading the team in receiving TDs (5). Obviously those aren’t eye-popping receiver stats, but considering this offense really just needed some solid receiver play to complement the running game, ND wouldn’t be where they are now without those two becoming legitimate threats over the top and in the red zone.

Overall, I’m not sure the scheme has really changed as much as the players have just improved throughout the season. Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees is still mainly focused on establishing the run first with that big offensive line and tight ends paving the way, and then sprinkling in the pass as the defense is forced to try to sell out to stop the run. The passing game has maybe opened up a bit more as McKinley and Skowronek have emerged from their shells and as Book has stepped up, but otherwise the offensive game plan has been really the same all season, schematically-speaking.

Tom: How do you see this Notre Dame offense performing now against a healthier Clemson defense versus what we saw in the regular-season thriller between these two teams?

Pat: I don’t think I’m saying anything groundbreaking here when I say it’ll be much tougher for the Irish the second time around. Firstly, it’s always just tough to beat a team twice in one season — they’ve seen your offense and how they match up, can tweak their approach accordingly, etc.

But then obviously the bigger difference this time is that Clemson’s defense is much closer to full strength. Tyler Davis and James Skalski were BIG absences last time, as the ND running game wore the Tigers down up the middle and had their way with Clemson in overtime. Now, with those guys back and starting center Jarrett Patterson out for the year, it’ll be a much taller task for Tommy Rees’ crew to see the production they want to see running the ball. How Josh Lugg (likely starter at center) plays will be paramount to the unit’s success, no question.

I do think, though, that the Irish will still be able to run the ball a little bit, and the way Book and the receivers are now playing, I won’t say that the ND offense is likely to be shut down this time around. However, I don’t think Kyren “Bellyman” Williams will be running for a 65-yard TD on the opening drive, nor do I think Avery Davis will be able to surprise Clemson’s secondary with some huge plays down the stretch like he did in November — they know he’s a slippery, dangerous little slot receiver and need to account for him accordingly.

Clemson v Notre Dame Photo by Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images

The big game-changer, though, will be if the Tigers are able to get some early stops with their healthy defense, and if the Clemson offense with Lawrence back will be able to build up a nice lead early. That could force Rees to pass more the rest of the way, playing catch-up and taking the Irish out of their run-heavy, ball-control element. If that happens, it could be a long day for the Irish offense, and I think Clemson would win comfortably.

Tom: The Irish have also been stout defensively all season, but now have to face the Tigers with Trevor Lawrence at QB. Besides his well-known passing prowess, Lawrence also gives the Tigers more of a QB run threat than DJ Uiagalelei did back in early November (particularly because Uiagalelei had a sore shoulder, and Clemson was reluctant to use him heavily in the run game). So there will likely be more zone-read plays, and beyond that, if the Tigers get one or more of WRs Frank Ladson and Joseph Ngata back, they might have additional down-field threats as well. With all of this being said, what should we expect to see in terms of how Notre Dame might counter this different-looking Clemson offense?

Pat: I think if this would have been Uiagalelei under center again, defensive coordinator Clark Lea would have decided he’d found the best approach to beating the freshman in that second overtime in November — bring the heat, force him to quickly make decisions before being hit/sacked by the Irish front seven, etc.

With Lawrence back, I have to think Lea will pull the defense back for a much more disciplined, read-and-react approach — at least early on. With Lawrence and Travis Etienne running the zone-read and Lawrence’s veteran ability to make reads and also run very effectively, the Irish can’t get caught over-pursuing or jumping the gun too much by being overly aggressive.

So, I think they’ll probably play a fairly base defense that’s focused on trying to keep people like Cornell Powell, Amari Rodgers, and Frank Ladson/Joseph Ngata from beating them deep (and hoping the ND DEs can get pressure off the edge on their own) while staying focused on containing the Clemson backfield and ensuring they’re filling all necessary gaps. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and Drew White will be CRITICAL in serving that role.

Lea is known for his in-game adjustments, so as the game goes on, he may shake things up — especially if playing a more base defense only serves to let Trevor Lawrence get comfortable and carve up the Irish corners for big gains through the air. He’ll probably try to throw some different coverages at Lawrence to keep him guessing a bit, but with ND’s corners definitely not unbeatable, he may have to turn to bringing some extra pressure and hope it can get to Lawrence (and not allow him to scramble away) before he’s able to take advantage.

Tom: Clemson fans are already pretty familiar with Notre Dame’s team given the recent matchup this season. But besides the usual suspects (e.g., Ian Book, Kyren Williams, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Javon McKinley, Ben Skowronek, and Kyle Hamilton) who are some under-the-radar players, on either side of the ball, who we should keep an eye on? (Or did I give too many names already?)

Pat: You got most of the big-name guys for sure, but as a super long-winded Notre Dame blogger, I’ve got a few more names for y’all to look out for on Saturday.

Offensively, tight end Michael Mayer is a dangerous, dangerous man. He’s a true freshman and former 5-star who already has the size and speed of an NFL tight end and has had a really nice first season for the Irish (30 rec, 337 yds, 2 TD). He actually cost the Irish some points with a drop and a false start near the goal line in the first Clemson game, so he’ll be looking to have a more helpful day in the red zone for sure — and being a matchup nightmare for LBs and DBs alike, he may be able to do that.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 14 Notre Dame at Boston College Photo by Fred Kfoury III/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While we’re talking tight ends, try to watch No. 24, Tommy Tremble, if you enjoy tight ends who GET AFTER IT in run-blocking. He’s often a huge reason for Kyren “Bellyman” Williams or Chris Tyree getting the daylight to break off a big gain — he simply devours guys at times.

Other rapid-fire offensive guys to note:

  • True freshman RB Chris Tyree, who will get a handful of carries in relief of Williams and had a 94-yard TD last week against Syracuse — dude has the speed to outrun almost anyone
  • WR Avery Davis, who has been quiet since his heroics against Clemson in November, and thus might be due to use his speed and quickness to make a few more big plays against the Tigers
  • WR Braden Lenzy, No. 0, who’s been hampered by a hamstring injury all season and isn’t currently listed on the two-deep for this game. Maybe he’s out, but he played last week and is capable of blowing the doors off a defense with his track-star speed when remotely healthy.

Defensively, JOK and Hamilton are the future NFL stars, but the Irish defensive line is really a strength of the team and needs some recognition. I think fifth-year captain Adetokunbo Ogundeji is the best of the bunch (5.5 sacks, 6 QBH, 1 FF), but fellow fifth-year captain Daelin Hayes (3 sacks, 3 QBH, 2 FF) and sophomore Isaiah Foskey (4.5 sacks, 4 QBH) are also very, very good at getting to the QB. Their performances will be critical to helping keep the Irish secondary from looking BURNT against that Clemson passing attack.

Other rapid-fire defensive guys to watch out for:

  • LB Drew White doesn’t have the NFL speed and athleticism of JOK, but he’s a sure-tackling leader of this defense and has made a lot of big-time solo tackles over the past couple years
  • DTs Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa are the unsung heroes in the middle — they go HARD and do an excellent job in driving ND to being the No. 8 rush defense in the country
  • LB Marist Liufau has lots of speed at linebacker and has been playing very well lately. He rotates with Shayne Simon and Jack Kiser at the Buck linebacker spot, and on Nov. 7 Simon was the guy who stepped up of that trio. Is it Liufau’s turn on Saturday?
  • CB Clarence Lewis may get beat a few times on Saturday, but the kid is a 3-star true freshman who’s emerged as a starting corner on an elite defense playing in the ACC Championship Game. He’s got a bright future and doesn’t seem to be afraid of the spotlight — could be a fun guy to watch, to see how he competes against Clemson’s wideouts and deals with Trevor Lawrence throwing them the ball this time.

Tom: Any Notre Dame injury/illness/personnel issues we should be aware of that might affect Saturday’s game?

The only major difference between the ND team Clemson saw on Nov. 7 and the available team for Saturday is starting center Jarrett Patterson being out for the year. It’s definitely a big loss for the Irish, though, as this Irish offensive line is obviously one of the biggest strengths of the team; a big reason they’ve been so good is how old, experienced, and used to playing with each other they were. Patterson had started 21 straight games for ND until hurting his foot against Boston College, and although sophomore center Zeke Correll stepped in and did fine against UNC and Syracuse, he’s certainly no Patterson. Either Correll or senior Josh Lugg will start at center on Saturday (it’s starting to sound like it’ll be Lugg, per reports).

While we’re talking offensive line, something else to note is that starting RG Tommy Kraemer missed the UNC game after having an emergency appendectomy, and played limited time against Syracuse two weeks ago. He is reportedly good to go, but who knows if he’s 100%? The middle of the line will be something to watch, considering Tyler Davis will be playing this time around.

Elsewhere for the Irish, the same injuries as earlier in the year still stand, particularly at wideout. No. 1 WR Kevin Austin has essentially missed the entire year with a foot injury, and ND’s fastest receiver, Braden Lenzy, has been dealing with hamstring issues and wasn’t on the two-deep ND put out for this game (although, neither was Kraemer, whom Brian Kelly noted will start, so who knows what’s going on with that depth chart).

Otherwise, it should be a relatively healthy Irish squad squaring up against the Tigers in Charlotte, which is definitely nice to hear considering past years’ injury issues and considering who Clemson has back for this one.

Tom: Given that the Fighting Irish are undefeated and already have a regular-season win over Diet Clemson, they seem destined for the College Football Playoff even if they lose this game to the Tigers. Do you see any scenario where the Fighting Irish could actually miss out on the Playoff?

Pat: As a 29-year-old Notre Dame fan, I know better than to ever assume my Irish are ever “in” or “safe” or to expect anything except the worst. My heart can’t handle any more seasons where I truly believe ND’s got this, only to see them completely fall apart down the stretch. So yes, I definitely see a scenario where ND could miss the Playoff — especially after seeing how illogical this CFP committee has been with their weekly rankings (JUSTICE FOR COASTAL CAROLINA AND LOUISIANA!!!).

However, I DO think ND NOT making it is a long-shot at this point with Florida’s loss to LSU last weekend. The likeliest doomsday scenario for the Irish would have been the Gators beating Alabama and Clemson blowing ND out, thus creating a CFP where you have Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, and Florida making it (with all of them justified, except probably Ohio State — but they’re undefeated and OSU, so I get it).

With circumstances how they are now, I’m having trouble finding a situation where one of those other teams hanging around in the rankings has a chance to hop over a 10-1 ND, who still has wins over Clemson and UNC to its name.

Notre Dame v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

If Trevor Lawrence’s return means a shellacking of the Irish in the ACCCG, that would be the first needed piece of the puzzle — the narrative could easily become that Notre Dame couldn’t even compete with the “real” Clemson, and thus that November win needs to be severely discounted.

Fair or not, that probably knocks the Irish down onto the same level as 8-1 Texas A&M or even a 2-loss Florida team if they somehow add a win over Alabama in the SEC title game to their resume. At that point, it could almost be a coin toss between the three, because although A&M beat Florida, Florida has the best win of anyone by beating ‘Bama. However, they also have 2 losses and a bad loss to LSU. My mind is becoming a pretzel thinking through this.

In conclusion, it’s definitely possible, but I think a number of things would have to happen — I’ll be praying to our lord and savior Regis Philbin all week that the Irish at least keep it close on Saturday, squashing any potential narrative that could lead to them falling past No. 4 with a loss.

Tom: OK, prediction time. These teams already had an instant classic a little over a month ago, but now there is much more on the line (especially for Clemson), and the Tigers are healthier this time around. As of this writing, Clemson is favored by 10.5 points, which, regardless of my personal prediction, seems a bit high to me in terms of what the books are saying. Who do you think wins this one, how does it play out, and what’s the final score?

Pat: I’m having major PTSD flashbacks to when I was asked this question ahead of the 2018 Cotton Bowl — my answer then was essentially “my brain is telling me Clemson wins for sure, but my heart has me predicting ND.” I ended up saying Notre Dame would win 30-27, because I am an idiot.

This time FEELS somewhat similar, and tweets like this one definitely don’t help:

But I also think there’s a major difference this year, aside from me just generally thinking this Notre Dame team is better than the 2018 one. In 2018, we’d only seen the Irish beat teams like Michigan, Stanford, Virginia Tech, Syracuse, and USC — none of whom ended up being exactly elite. The 2018 team, thus, was a good squad who benefitted from an easy slate, and ran into a buzz saw when they finally encountered a top team in the Cotton Bowl.

This time, the Irish have already defeated that top team. Even if they were missing a few key guys, just having already played them and having emerged with a win was monstrous for the team’s confidence and confirmation that they belong on the same field as Clemson, and so I don’t think they’ll get absolutely shoved in a locker like 2018 (REALLY hoping I’m right on that).

Anyway, despite what my brain is telling me here in terms of DEFINITELY picking Clemson to win, I didn’t get to where I am — as a part-time writer for a Notre Dame blog on SB Nation — by writing intelligently or using my brain. Nay, I got here by ranking my favorite player names and writing Otto the Orange/Maury fan fiction, and I’m gonna keep flying by the seat of my pants until the day I die.

I think the Irish find a way to shock the Tigers and the nation once again. The news that ND defensive coordinator Clark Lea is leaving to take the Vanderbilt HC job will only serve to galvanize his guys, as they’ll want to send him out on a high note — the Irish defense will once again carry the day, and some big plays will be turned in by a mix of the stars (Kyle Hamilton, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Adetokunbo Ogundeji, Daelin Hayes) and some unheralded guys (Nick McCloud, Kurt Hinish, Drew White).

Meanwhile, although they won’t exactly light it up with Tyler Davis and James Skalski playing, I think Ian Book and the ND offense score just enough points to win another close one, with kicker Jonathan Doerer probably booting a couple of big field goals as well.

Give me Notre Dame 33, Clemson 31 in a game that will take another 5-10 years off my life, no doubt.

Bold stuff from Pat. Let’s hope he’s wrong.

Again, though, a big thank-you to Pat for taking the time to answer these questions in such detail. You can give him a Twitter follow here, and also check out One Foot Down for all things regarding Notre Dame sports. I also answered some questions Pat had about Clemson (and a couple of other things), which you can read here.